Magical Mystery War: Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013) – TV review
Nearly too cult for its own good, but how refreshing is it that England’s most promising director has given the V sign to Hollywood for avant-garde weirdness?
A Field In England
(Ben Wheatley, 2013)
Ah, England. Home to sex, drugs and rock’n’ roll. Or, in this case, a postulant penis, mind-bending psilocybins and folk ballads about death’n’destruction. After Kill List’s assault on victims representing the law, the clergy and the cultural elite, and Sightseers’ synthesis of bucolic countryside and murderous rage, A Field In England sees Ben Wheatley immerse himself totally into a nation far away from the mythical idyll of UKIP.
Aptly, it’s a film set in the English Civil War – the period of our greatest upheaval – yet, barring the costumes and the odd line of dialogue, you’d have difficulty identifying Cavalier from Roundhead. Inside, it’s about the war within ourselves, a nation divided by greed, lust and stupidity, in which intelligence is no match for street-smarts until it lets the Devil in. This is the war film at its most surreal and satirical: a homegrown version of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly where circumstances form a ragtag bunch of treasure seekers. Yet, in a pagan land, mightn’t that treasure be something more malign and troubling than gold? It isn’t even witchcraft, but something scarier: self-knowledge.
Fittingly for a film destined to become known for its radical everything-in-a-day distribution model, A Field In England is designed to shake things up. It’s an epic turned inside out – just a few men in a single field. It’s a horror movie in broad daylight. It’s a broad, bawdy comedy that plays like the missing link between Chaucer and Withnail And I, in which a face is shotgunned off in slow-motion close-up. No wonder the film’s last act turns its own imagery on itself, into a stroboscopic blur so wild it makes a mockery of symmetry.
The only trouble, really, is that Wheatley so desperately wants this to be the most cult of cult movies ever. It’s implicit in the event-status release, but the quotability of its dialogue, the world-weary profanity of its “shit and thistles” attitude to life, the strategic violence and the weirdness of its conception all lead to a director playing up to his reputation as the hipster’s friend a little too much. The technical skill and tactile outrage of the trip sequence – which is physically difficult to watch – is destined to become a talking point that separates cineastes from the herd.
And yet, really, what else could this be? The ambiguity and ambition here ultimately serves a very different function to the illicit thrills of, say, Drive. Wheatley has a conscience between the razzle-dazzle and he’s created a film to puzzle over rather than to fetishise for its cool. It is cerebral and visceral, a reminder that there is more to British cinema than cosy period dramas and cookie cutter comedies. And it’s a reminder that England, for all our perceived cultural sophistication, remains at heart a field: muddy, bloody and prey to whatever we happen to take into it.
A Field In England is available now, in whatever flavour you want to taste it in.
Tagged British Cinema